Being married gives you plenty of options to practice forgiveness—both asking for your spouse’s forgiveness and forgiving them when they do you wrong. Sometimes, it is a small offense that is easy to overlook (Proverbs 19:11). But there are also times when the sin seems too big to forgive, or you’re just fed up with having to forgive them for the seventh time that day (Luke 17:4).
How do you forgive your spouse when forgiveness is hard?
Often, the reason we don’t want to forgive someone is because we misunderstand what forgiveness is. We think it means we have to first stop feeling pain or forget that the offense happened. However, feeling and forgetting are not conscious actions that you can command someone to do. Since God commands us to forgive (Colossians 3:13), we know that forgiveness has to be a choice that we control.
Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. It’s a choice we make to cancel the relational debt that someone owes us. It means that we won’t punish them or seek revenge (Proverbs 24:29), and that we will not hate them (1 John 3:15) or hold a grudge (Matthew 5:21-22). Instead, we hand the situation over to God. We acknowledge that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to cover their sins, just like it covers our own (Colossians 2:13-14).
Why should you forgive your spouse? The motivation for forgiving anyone comes from how God has forgiven all of us.
When focused on how your spouse has sinned against you, it can be easy to overlook or minimize your own sins. You may think that your sins are not that bad in comparison—if you think about them at all. However, from God’s standpoint, all sin creates a massive debt which you can never repay (Matthew 18:23-35). God chooses to forgive you anyway, at great cost to Himself (1 Peter 2:24). Because you have been forgiven much, you should be willing to forgive much (Matthew 6:14-15). Otherwise, you are like the “unforgiving servant” in Matthew 18, who has been granted amazing grace but refuses to extend any grace to others.
When you’ve been deeply hurt by someone, forgiving them can seem like an impossible task. But God doesn’t leave you to fend for yourself. Pray to Him for peace (Philippians 4:6-7) and the strength (Philippians 4:13) to forgive them.
Pray for understanding. In some situations, both sides can be at fault; you might need to both forgive your spouse and ask for their forgiveness. For example, if you get into an argument and start calling each other names, then both of you will have something to forgive the other person for. Ask God to search your heart and point out if there are any things that you should ask forgiveness for (Psalm 139:23-24). There might not be anything; sometimes you are an innocent victim. Other times, your role might be relatively minor, with your spouse responsible for most of the problem. But even if you are only responsible for a tiny part, fully own that part and seek forgiveness as you grant forgiveness to them.
Forgiving your spouse does not mean that you are giving them permission to do the same thing again. And in some situations, it can be wise to set boundaries to protect yourself going forward. For example, you can forgive your spouse for looking at pornography while also installing internet filters to block such content.
In the end, forgiving your spouse is a decision you have to make. It is up to you; it’s not based on what your spouse does (or does not do).
If you are having difficulty forgiving your spouse or rebuilding trust in your marriage, there is help. Re|engage is designed for couples who are looking to reconnect, restore, or resurrect their marriages. You can learn more about re|engage or find a location near you.